All Commentary
Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Our Cages and Labyrinths

Contemporary Pop-Culture Themes Point to a Conscious Awakening

Over the last year, I’ve had some sense that certain themes are emerging in pop literature and film—themes that are different from dominant strains of the past. I struggled to put my finger on it, but it finally hit me what these themes are and why they matter.

The plot lines are highly suggestive of what it is like to live in (and overcome) an age of pervasive government control—an age pretty much like our own.

Five shows illustrate the point: Breaking Bad on AMC; Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards, both of which are currently making Netflix a mint in new subscribers; the insanely popular Hunger Games series of novels and films; and Boardwalk Empire, from HBO. Let’s look at what they have in common.

All students of literature and film are trained to find the core source of drama in a story. What is it that is stopping the main characters from achieving their goals, and how do the characters work around those difficulties? In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the sources were predictably natural: terrible weather (Grapes of Wrath), privation and the struggle with poverty (Dickens), caste and class (the Brontë sisters), moral upheaval (FrankensteinDr. Jekyll), the reversion to the state of nature as a result of accident (Robinson Crusoe), and so forth.

But times have changed. And 21st-century popular culture reflects those changes. Given all the progress we’ve made, the obstacles in our world tend no longer to be material but political. In most places in the world today, disease, hunger, shelter, plagues, and natural disaster aren’t the overriding issues affecting daily life as they once were. Something different afflicts today’s generation.

These are the artificial barriers of law and legislation as contrived by bureaucrats and politicians.

In many aspects of popular books and films, the reality of legal barriers and the resulting institutional restrictions create terrible constraints within which characters must find solutions to problems. In doing so, people call on certain immutable features of human action. They trade with each other, legally or not. They rally individual talents. These individuals learn and train undercover. They muster their wits. They outsmart their masters through cunning escapes, creative entrepreneurship, and stunning derring-do. They pursue their self-interest while seeking ways to benefit others at the same time, all with the goal of not just surviving but actually thriving against the odds. They aren’t outrunning wild beasts or hurricanes or other features of nature’s cruelty; they are outrunning enforcement agents, authority and rules, and would-be tyrants.

Games People Play

The Hunger Games illustrates the point nicely. This dystopian novel series, hugely popular among young people, features a tyrannical government bent on total social and economic control. Every person has been assigned a district and each district has certain deprivations assigned to it. Society has plenty of wealth, but that wealth is only on display in the capitol. For everyone else, wealth is apportioned based on political favoritism and planning.

The result is a wholly unnecessary, wholly selective deprivation. Such deprivation is intended to keep the population dependent on the center and too weak to revolt. People are especially demoralized by the annual games in which two children are chosen from each district for a battle to the death—a kind of annual penance that must be paid as the price of an attempted coup d’etat many years earlier.

What do people do about it? Surrender completely and have their individuality crushed? Not at all. These people form families, cultivate learning and talents, figure out ways to trade to their mutual benefit, and even come up with ways to subvert the system given the extreme constraints. They love, they grow, they struggle to be free, digging deep within themselves to find meaning and somehow cobble together a civilized existence.

The message of the series: The human spirit is uncrushable, despite every attempt to do it in.

Red, White, and Blue (Blood, Walter, and Meth)

In a strange way, the hugely popular Breaking Bad similarly takes on external restraints, this time those imposed by the drug war. A high school chemistry teacher is diagnosed with cancer; the cost of treatment means his family will be left destitute when the disease kills him—as it appears certain to do. So he turns to using his knowledge and talents to enter the production side of the drug market.

In this series, the viewer discovers a gigantic society that thrives despite the law. There are large production structures, monetary and financial arrangements, capital investments, distribution channels, and fierce competition between providers. The series is eye-popping because we all know abstractly that such sectors exist, but we don’t encounter them in real life. And yet, the series retains the character of real life in every way.

In this drug sector, we see distortions that result from legal restrictions. People cheat, they lie, they steal. Violence is endemic. Jealousies and ego rage out of control. But despite it all, there are certain human universals. There is ambition, talent, exchange, determination, shifting alliances, social complexity, and the striving for a better life. And it all happens underground, even though the drug war overlords are everywhere and absolutely determined to stop it all—the main character’s brother-in-law is a big shot with the local DEA. Still, it doesn’t stop and it won’t stop.

The theme: The human penchant for getting ahead and living life to its fullest, even at great risk to person and property, cannot be crushed.


We find the same in the show Boardwalk Empire, which is television’s longest-running series on alcohol prohibition. As the show writers render the situation, two things are inconceivable about the law in such a world: that it could stop or even curtail alcohol consumption, and that there would be no vast, underground (barely) apparatus running production and distribution.

The official corruption among government agents is so pervasive that it is hard to call it corruption at all; prohibition is nothing but opportunity for them. All the main players are focused on the same issues as every enterprise: distribution routes, payments, accounting, suppliers, competition, product quality. The big difference between this market and others concerns the lack of legal channels to settle disputes. That means unrelenting violence.

Rusty Cage

Another permutation of the idea of artificial barriers is revealed the prison drama Orange is the New Black. Even in prison and despite ever-present guards and wardens, bars, and rules, somehow a complex society is formed. The prisoners learn to trade and develop ways of getting along, keeping dignity, cultivating talents, and finding love. All the guns in the world can’t stop this process.

There is a complex coordination taking place between people and groups—a full society unto itself, even in prison, and it is not unlike regular society except to the extent that it is truncated and corrupted by the institutional constraints under which it evolves.

So there we have it. Even a high-security prison cannot suppress that which is in all of us: the longing for a better and more prosperous life. We will form associations. We will cobble together a life. We will make the best of a ghastly situation and even prevail under extreme restraint. The drama with which we identify is to cheer on those who are getting around the system.

Intriguingly, you can find the same themes in the series House of Cards. I initially dismissed this series—who cares who is ascending or descending within the political system?—but eventually came to see it as subtly brilliant for what it tells us about government today.

The main character has the ambition to be president. He is dedicated to power as an ideology and life ambition. But in order to obtain it, he needs the cooperation of others, which he buys with favors and careful maneuvering. Even more than the prison situation, the political game is ridiculously artificial. Still, we see the same motivations at work as we see in every other area of life. Markets exist even in the thick of government morass. And yet because of the institutional constraints, they are put toward the evil end of ruling other people rather than serving them.

In other words, in each of these cases, the people continue to be like people we know—like the people we are—no matter what settings we find them in. Whether a totalitarian dystopia, a drug war, a justice system plagued by corruption, a prison, or even a self-contained world of politics that is nearly untouched by market forces, markets still operate because markets are built by people who are not machines but real human actors.

These are all stories of the invincibility of individualism, human ambition, and the will to survive and thrive. Examples abound.

Sign of the Times

Now to the question: Why is this theme so pervasive in popular culture today? The reason has to do with the signs of our times. Humanity has learned to clothe, feed, and house itself. Prosperity of the sort we know today has never in history been more pervasive. We’ve learned to control plagues, infestations, and crop failure. We’ve even learned how to deal with natural disaster better than any previous generation. As a result, in the developed world, today’s poor live better than the rich of a century or even a half century before. So where is the drama?

Where do we find the difficulties and challenges in today’s world?

The answer is obvious from the themes. The problem is government. Government is in a sense artificial, something built by people with power; it is unnecessary but somehow larger and more intrusive than ever. A free market has no such legal restrictions. There are challenges and difficulties but they are not distorted and encumbered by force of law. Their tendency is toward ever more opportunity and elimination of distortions.

Government, in contrast, imposes systems, and these systems have the effect of limiting human choice and the formation of normal lives and institutions. This is obviously the problem in the United States today. Dealing with bureaucracies, politics, absurd rules, and gigantic, convoluted legislation is something that affects every business and every family. Our choices are limited by that labyrinth of control. This state of affairs disproportionately affects young people.

But do we give up? No, we work to overcome. We learn to deal with the realities and somehow find our way to a better life regardless of the barriers and restrictions. This reality is ever-more dawning on people today, simply because the coercive apparatus of the State is creeping deeper into people’s daily lives, and that reality is becoming more obvious. Individuals will not be defeated, no matter how extreme the constraints.

To be sure, other societies have dealt with such problems. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian literature featured this theme. And so it was with the popular ideological convictions in Eastern Europe after the Second World War. A Polish woman who lived through communism recently told me that in her day, everyone knew who the enemy was. The enemy was government. There was no doubt about it. As she put it, as bad as the system was, there was widespread clarity on both the problem and the solution. Everyone knew that surviving and getting by meant breaking the law.

Are we getting to that point under modern democracy today? Absolutely. But the realization has been slow to dawn. The themes and popularity of these shows are a sign of hope that this consciousness is beginning to spread. The major barriers to social advancement today are the systems of government human beings created. They have attempted to regiment us and take away our freedom of action. As pop culture is demonstrating for us, this must not be allowed to happen. Above all else, it must not be allowed to succeed, for the success of external control means the failure of the human spirit.

Special thanks to Paul Cantor, Steven Horwitz, Doug French, and Nicholas Tucker for their commentary on a draft of this piece.